The Problem with Politicized Programs: Ad Sales

By Alex Weprin 

In his New York Times Magazine cover story about Fox News host Glenn Beck, author Mark Leibovich writes about Beck’s ratings, and touches upon the problem the show has had with advertisers:

His show now averages two million viewers, down from a high of 2.8 million in 2009, according to the Nielsen Ratings. And as of Sept. 21, 296 advertisers have asked that their commercials not be shown on Beck’s show (up from 26 in August 2009). Fox also has a difficult time selling ads on “The O’Reilly Factor” and “Fox and Friends” when Beck appears on those shows as a guest. Beck’s show is known in the TV sales world as “empty calories,” meaning he draws great ratings but is toxic for ad sales.

While the story is about Beck, the “empty calorie” problem is hardly unique to his show. Programs with a heavy political or ideological focus often have a hard time attracting blue chip advertisers.

Some of the country’s biggest advertisers, like the major automakers or retailers like Target, prefer to spend their money on programs that a have a wide reach, and which are generally uncontroversial. No one is going to call for a boycott of advertisiers to “Monday Night Football” or “Law & Order,” for example.

On the other hand, Ideological and political programming  often ventures into controversial territory, with interest groups always on the lookout for the latest offensive statement to jump on.

This is why Beck’s program attracts advertisers like Goldline or the Survival Seed Bank, companies that probably could not afford to advertise nationally on a mainstream entertainment program. Because of the sometimes-controversial nature of his show, many Fox News advertisers (296 according to the Times) simply prefer to see their products or brands featured on “safer” programming like “Studio B.”

In that respect, CNN has a big advantage over its more ideological competition.